Michelle Obama's playful style can still upstage her rivals.
Those keen to pinpoint exactly how an essential relationship differs from a special one will be tracking Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choices closely.
The president’s wife has a talent for projecting a style which underscores and illustrates her husband’s political message, while showcasing her own personality. From the glamour she brought to the campaign trail to the casual style she brings to appearances at her vegetable garden or with her daughters, she has been adept at matching the look to the message.
The keynote of the outfit worn for her recent palace visit was cheerful informality. The unspoken palace dress code, as worn by the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall, usually revolves around a matching suit, whether dress and coat, as worn by the Queen, or jacket and skirt, as seen on the Duchess.
Michelle Obama wore a pale-blue silk dress, by the American designer Barbara Tfank, which with a matching coat would have been almost suitable for the Queen herself. But by wearing it with a pink bolero she set herself apart; a visual demonstration of a difference in mindset. Both pieces, by themselves, could have come from a royal wardrobe. It is as if she rifled through the Queen and Duchess’s clothes rails and put an outfit together by taking apart two formal suits.
Michelle Obama uses the unexpected - a vibrant colour combination, a punchy belt, flat shoes where you would expect a formal court pair - to add personality which helps to humanise very formal situations. Without her colourful outfit, the photocall from the gun salute at the palace would have blended unnoticed into any gallery of similar state occasions.
She used a similar trick at the inauguration of her husband, when instead of choosing any of the obvious, symbolic colours - power red, or Democrat blue - she chose a colour which had reporters scrambling to describe. “Lemongrass” came out on top; so, too, did Michelle’s impressive ability to introduce a new word into the conversation.
Ambassador for American designers
Kate Betts, an American fashion editor who has written a book about Michelle Obama’s look, wrote in the New York Times earlier this year that “her message of optimism and appearance is often transmitted through her appearance. She is sometimes an ambassador for American designers, but more important, she is an ambassador for the self-possession that defines American style.”
After channelling Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail and in her early appearances, she has in the past year moved toward a more casual look. Shift dresses and pearls have been dropped in favour of prom-style skirts, simple knitwear, bright stripes.
Her outfit for the palace visit will perhaps play better at home than it will in Britain: the full-skirted shape and curved collar referenced a gracious, homemade lemonade vision of American womanhood which is perhaps what the US public want her to represent at Buckingham Palace. But to modern British eyes - post Alexander McQueen wedding dress, post-Pippa madness - it looked somewhat stiff and upholstered.
The contrast with the new Duchess of Cambridge was marked and surprising. The first lady was in girlish, almost princessly sheeny florals; the new princess, by contrast, looked a vision of modern, transatlantic glamour. The dress, the blow-dry, the deep tan: this could be Victoria Beckham at a Los Angeles luncheon. What’s more, Kate’s dress is currently available on the British high street, for £175, from Reiss.
If the look for the earlier part of the day was intended to radiate an upbeat informality, the outfit that Michelle Obama chose to wear for her meeting at No 10 was rather more stately.
She chose to wear a claret dress by the British designer Roksanda Ilincic underneath a cobalt blue coat by US designer Narciso Rodriguez. She has worn Ilincic previously, during the week of the state visit to the US from the Chinese president.
Then her preference for British designers was criticised as being unpatriotic - her decision to wear a red Alexander McQueen evening gown being the most contentious and sparking outcry amongst certain US designers. Tuesday’s nod of approval to Illincic for the much-anticipated meeting with Samanatha Cameron was more safe than subversive.
Instead it fell to the PM’s wife, pictured, to play the fashion-forward trump card. In a skilled display of fashion fluency, she chose to wear a printed dress by the British-based design duo Peter Pilotto. It has become something of a Michelle Obama trademark to champion a little-known designer by wearing a fashion-crowd pleasing yet uncomplicated dress, and this is precisely what Samantha Cameron did. It is unlikely that the abstract printed dress worn with grey platforms was demonstrative of an undercurrent of sartorial competition.
Instead, by echoing the usual style of her guest, the host was displaying a form of style synthesis which can only be read as entirely welcoming.—